The debate that surrounds the ‘war’ on University campus freedom of speech has once again reared its ugly head. This time,the Indian born British poet Rudyard Kipling is the one under fire. What for? The poem ‘If’, which talks about the greatness of hard work, which happened to have been painted on a pillar inside a recently renovated building at the University of Manchester.
The poem, only been on the pillar for a number of days since the building had officially been re-opened, was painted over and instead replaced by the poem ‘Still I Rise’ written by prominent Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou.
The reason for this has been provided by members of the Manchester University Students Union, who have said that ‘as an exec team, believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights – the things that we, as an SU, stand for.’
Therefore, the reason that has been given for effectively erasing a classic poem from the wall of a Students Union building is that it may or may not represent the ideas of a man who was, in no uncertain terms, a racist. I personally find the reason, although legitimate for those who have committed this act, a weak basis on which to base a justification for purposely painting over an innocent poem. After all, the poem itself does not contain any racist language whatsoever.
There has been a widespread backlash against the decision, led by the likes of Julia Hartley-Brewer, who claimed that ‘future employers think you’re all a bunch of complete lunatic snowflakes’, and Stephen Bush who has said the whole issue is ‘stupid’.
There is no real dispute over whether Kipling, although he was a talented writer and poet, was a man who today would be ostracised for his views. However, the issue with this whole debate boils down to the ongoing and ever-present debate regarding free speech on University Campuses; something that has been hotly debated both here and in the United States.
The issue of free speech and censoring of history is an emotional topic which is likely to stir up strong feelings on many sides of the argument. But the censoring of history is a recent phenomenon that has swept across the world in recent times. The controversy over the Kipling poem is only the latest in a long string of issues that have sparked furious debates around the world.
One of the most contentious to happen in the past twelve months was the debate over whether statues commemorating the Confederacy of the American Civil War should be displayed in public places or not. The main focal point of contention was the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the most famous Confederate General of the Civil War, which was destined to be moved from a park in Charlottesville in 2017.
This then led to a violent protest by elements of the ‘alt-right’ and left-wing groups whichresulted in the death of one woman, caught in the violence whilst peacefully protesting against the far right.
There have also been battles over here to have certain historical figures in Britain removed from public view. One such example is the #RhodesMustFall campaign that began in Cape Town as a protest to Cecil Rhodes, and his rule in Southern Africa, but made its way to the halls of Oxford University in 2016.
Those who started the campaign argued that Rhodes’ statue at Oxford University should be taken down as it symbolizes, and even gives a nod to, the age of Empire and the time in which he lived. There is no question over the man’s views, he was a racist, but this is another example of applying modern attitudes to historical events. This is something that is destined to fall in the favour of the modern times and attitudes, which is a dangerous precedent to set.
Moreover, another campaign that was aired by Afua Hirsch was to remove Nelson’s column from Trafalgar Square. Hirsch argued that the statue that is dedicated to Britain’s greatest Naval commander in history does more than just commemorate a war hero – it represents a dark period in world history during the Slave Trade. Again this is, to some extent, true. Nelson did come from a time where slavery existed, but his column is not there to mock the colonies. Rather, it is to commemorate the victories over Napoleons France.
It was the father of Conservatism, Edmund Burke, who said that ‘those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.’ And this is the crux of the entire debate. Should we celebrate the views of men such as General Lee and other Confederate Generals with regards to the Slave Trade? No, absolutely not. Should we rejoice when hearing of all the awful things that Cecil Rhodes? Again, no.
But should we keep these statues in place, as to allow for the next generations of humanitarians, historians, and politicians to learn from, and educating themselves about the past and where we, as humans, have come in such a relatively short space of time? Absolutely.
History is the main way of tracing our past as humans, and to remove statues or deface a poem simply because we do not agree with the views of the person to which they pertain is, quite simply put, a form of censorship. It must come to an end if we are to allow for history to be remembered, visualised and, most importantly, debated in public for generations to come.